For the last few months we've been hearing from Japanese manga publishers that they're going to try and stem the massive (and very profitable) tide of online manga piracy with a legal solution of their own. This sounds good in theory, but then jmanga.com was unveiled. I wanted this to work out, but I'll put it bluntly: this system isn't going to fly.
Jmanga offers online manga in English at steep prices: on average $2 a chapter a la carte, with full books coming out to anywhere from $8 to $11. These are the same prices we would pay for a brand-new manga volume in a US bookstore, and double to triple the cost of the average small Japanese volume. In exchange for that high price, Jmanga offers no actual advantages. You can't actually download the comic-- it must be read at jmanga.com and at jmanga.com only-- so it's hard to say that you even really "own" the book you bought. If jmanga were to ever go down, and it's hardly guaranteed that this site will stick around long, you wouldn't be able to enjoy any of the stuff you'd paid for.
What's worse is that you can't even "buy" manga right away. First you have to become a subscriber. $10 gets you a one-month subscription and 1000 "points" (since it's launch, you get 1500 right now): basically jmanga's Fun Bucks that correspond directly to dollars and cents. Once you're subscribed, you're treated to the option of buying more points, in case you want to read more than one book in the month.
Free members have a small amount of free content available to them: however, "free previews" of titles are strictly limited to under ten pages. This includes the cover, table of contents, and so on. I kid you not. As such, the previews are completely unhelpful: one I read (Gokudo Meshi) was over before anything even happened. jmanga claims that free members will be handed out small amounts of points, but I can't imagine theyd be able to do much but save up for weeks until they could read a single chapter of a title.
Keep in mind that just next door to this stifling system are at least four or five major, free manga reader sites that illegally provide more manga than you could read in a lifetime and rake in the cash via advertising. Jmanga does not have a chance against these sites, and they've proven that without major legal action, they're not going anywhere. Hell, Mangafox is so flagrant that they've even opened a bootleg merchandise shop.
Plus, yes, a lot of fans fundamentally aren't into the idea of supporting what they like. Hanging out at the Vertical table at Otakon, a girl came by oh-so-excited that Chi's Sweet Home was on the table. She gushed about how cute it was and that she loved it and so on, but when it came to "great, wanna buy it?" she started to waffle and told the folks manning the table that, well, she was saving up for something else at the con, you know how it is, etc. Finally she let it out: "I just read Chi online! But I'm so happy to see it here! Bye!" And she bounded away. She probably didn't even know she was saying "fuck you".
In this market, with this audience, a model like jmanga's isn't going to work anymore. Not in the West, not on the Internet, not in 2011. Even if we're talking about legal choices, Netflix gives you a library of media big enough for several lifetimes for $8 a month. Crunchyroll gives you a massive Japanese library for $8 a month. And people are going to pay $10 for a single volume of Japanese comics in this age of infinite entertainment for anyone with an Internet connection? It doesn't make any sense.
Unfortunately for me, there's a lot of content on jmanga that is exactly what I am interested in. The site boasts healthy selections well beyond just the shounen and shoujo stuff that dominates the racks at Barnes and Noble: really unusual stuff, like manga about a woman who finds herself as a pro dog-walker and a guy who goes around eating bento boxes at different Japanese train stations. It's material so niche you could only sell it digitally... but unfortunately, they want to do it at $10 a digital book.
Did I mention that there's a huge amount of decades-old work from Golgo 13 author Takao Saito?
It's really frustrating to be an manga/anime fan who actually gives a shit about supporting the creators and their work, because Japanese companies go through so much to make that difficult for us. Time and again we've seen Japanese companies attempt to enter the foreign manga/anime markets their way, sticking to high prices and premium membership plans: strategies that are proven not to work in the West. When $50 DVDs and "spend even more!" point programs don't work, the companies in charge say "Well, they just weren't interested" and walk away.
But we know it's not that, because I was just in Baltimore with 30,000 people (of whom I'll charitably say 20,000 actually cared about manga and anime) who paid out the nose just to be with other people who shared that interest, just to share a space and be passionate. So don't give me this "they weren't interested" shit, Japan. We may be some of the problem, but we aren't all of the problem. If nothing changes, Jmanga will simply wind up the next Raijin Comics. I loved Raijin. It still failed.